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Is the Islamic State Really Weakening?

islamic state iraqi forces in fallujah
Iraq soldiers show the victory sign while holding an IS flag upside-down after liberating the city of Fallujah, in Iraq, on 27 June 2016. Photo MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL/SIPA

The holy month of Ramadan is, for Muslims, a time of spiritualism and charity work. Yet Islamist militias have transformed it into a period of attacks, and the Islamic State (IS) has made it the month of killings. Ramadan 2016 was particularly bloody, the climax of a spate of violence in June and July that coincided with the IS’ territorial losses and rival al-Qaeda’s resurgence. Some experts point to a change in strategy by the extremist group.

When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his split from al-Qaeda in June 2013 and declared that he was reviving the caliphate – abolished in Istanbul in 1926 – he sent shockwaves around the world. This was not the emergence of a new terrorist group nor a typical coup d’état, but the rebirth of an entity that had kept the West fighting – and Muslims united – for more than a millennium.

In Syria, the IS expanded its control from Raqqa to the outskirts of Aleppo. Meanwhile, it crossed into Iraq, capturing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, along with Fallujah and several other places. In June 2015, the Libyan city of Sirte was seized by armed groups affiliated with the IS. The same year, Boko Haram, which controls a region in eastern Nigeria, pledged allegiance to the group.

Between 2014 and 2015, the IS’ motto ‘Remaining and Expanding’ seemed as accurate as a messianic prophecy. In response, an international coalition was formed with the aim of destroying the IS. Western and Islamic countries (Turkey, Saudi Arabia) united to strike IS strongholds. Russia launched its own campaign in September 2015. Multiple militias in Syria, Iraq and Libya as well as local armies received substantial aid from anti-IS belligerents and turned their guns on the group. By the end of 2015, the IS’ expansion was slowing. By mid-2016, the ‘expansion’ had turned into recession.

As maps from June and July 2016 show, the IS is losing ground on its fringes and near its main centres (Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, Mosul). Fallujah, a symbolic Islamist stronghold, was liberated by the Iraqi army on 26 June, and American officials estimate that the group has lost up to 50 per cent of its Iraqi territory. In Libya too, a campaign to dislodge the IS from Sirte and its surroundings, led by troops from the powerful city of Misrata, is ongoing and witnessing advances against the entrenched Jihadists.

The IS is also facing challenges from within. Stories are emerging about desertions from the core IS ranks. Yet the biggest threat comes from parent group al-Qaeda. After al-Baghdadi’s decision to split from al-Qaeda in 2013, the latter organization seemed doomed to disappear and thousands of jihadists switched sides, attracted by the IS’ appealing brand. But in 2015, a series of attacks in Africa, France, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, all attributed to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s extremists, brought al-Qaeda back to international attention.

Large-scale attacks, especially against foreigners, are a magnet for young, impressionable extremists. By moving away from the complicated task of managing territories and concentrating on single attacks, al-Qaeda regained its lost energy and notoriety among the youth, especially as the IS became gradually engulfed in a total war.

The loss of IS territory needed to be avenged with warning attacks against those responsible for it, and the recruitment difficulties required spectacular attacks abroad, a means to shine. The more territory IS loses, the less it is a state, and the more it becomes a terrorist group resorting to bombings and guerrilla warfare. It no longer looks like a burgeoning state but increasingly like al-Qaeda 2.0.

As some had predicted, the IS is as a result shifting its strategy towards pure terrorist attacks. These are not limited to the West, as the Dhaka café hostage-taking (1 July, 20 killed), Baghdad bombing (3 July, more than 200 people killed) and the countless targeted assaults in places such as Tunisia, Libya and Egypt have shown.

The IS’ new format is a lose network of disparate groups whose only affiliation is the need for a strong brand name. Hence, lone wolves are encouraged to commit their violent acts and pledge allegiance – sometimes through a Facebook message – to the IS’ caliph. Their actions are disconnected, but they all bear the IS trademark, giving them force and power. The IS’ new format is perhaps born out of weakness, but it will hurt and bleed.

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